Most pictures and words from Anthony C Murphy

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


Chapbook Chaps and Chapesses commune at CUNY.

I’m at the Fourth Annual Chapbook Festival, located in the bladder of CUNY’s Graduate Centre, under 5th Ave. It’s a three-day festival unique to New York and it’s the only one in the country to focus on the arts and craft of the chapbook. The Center For The Humanities  saw a need for a celebratory gathering of this celebrity-free, far-flung community. For the last few years, small and independent presses have met to flesh out their virtual friendships. There are representatives from Minneapolis, Ohio, Massachusetts, and, fuck me, Uruguay and Croatia.
             Central to this event is the book fair. Here the public have a niche market at their fingertips as these publishing artisans proudly display their wares. There are plenty of colorful, beautifully designed, letterpressed, hand stitched books to peruse and be purchased.  An amiable buzz hovers over the stalls all day. Imagine a craft beer convention, this is similarly intoxicating yet less messy.

                I talk to publishers, editors, writers and reviewers, all of them happy to offload their knowledge and experience. There is no pressure of sales only the shared joy in books as objects or artifacts. For those amongst us who have labored over creating and showing our own work it’s heartwarming to see such a thriving, energetic hub. They are all out there somewhere, scattered, dealing, swapping and overlapping with each other via words, but here, once a year, existence is physically realized.

There is aesthetic inspiration to be gained from the produce on show. In this age of Internet saturation a place like this is tactile overload for readers and writers. Ideas abound as how to produce booklets on a shoestring budget, some more basic than others. Mondo Bummer Books have neat sheets of letter size paper simply printed, stapled and folded; the overall effect is one of humorous accessibility. If we can do it why can’t you? You can't? You can.
                     At the other end of the scale, detailed technical ability can produce something lovely and collectable. The fortunate winners of chapbook competitions get to see their work wrapped in denim or embossed with exquisite woodcuts - proof that there’s still value to sending work out. These limited editions are produced for the craft involved and distributed amongst like-minded people, very few will find their way into bookshops. It’s a cottage industry and lovingly thatched at that. With roses on top.   

   It’s not all about the context obviously (although as Frank O’Hara pointed out, you put on your tightest pair of jeans if you want to get noticed in the street) so what is within these little chaps? Well, it is mostly poetry. There are a few prose books and a lot of images but in the main a chapbook has come to be “a gorgeous extension of the poem.” as Cara Benson of Belladonna puts it.
  So poetry is what we get. Opening any of the wares will lead to an insightful lyric one way or another. The reasons behind these chapbooks are the words within. There’s an array of events at the festival to highlight the content too.

       Lunch Poems happen each day. They are three-hour readings where a rattle bag of poets, published by the various presses, get ten minutes to show us their guts, to show us that the artifacts are not just empty boxes. The audience is warm and appreciative of course and a ready-made bed to have a wordy tumble in. Fuck them. I'm not jealous.

     There are workshops, for would be publishers and writers and writers who want to publish. An interesting side note is the thorny issue of self publication. It's almost taboo. After all, where is the line between vanity and nepotism? This issue is markedly dismissed. Of course the big boys in the publishing world don't want the industry to get too democratic, but they shouldn't be worried. If you have the means to put your wares out there, get them out. If it's crap we will all decide and we won't have swallowed a pill. 

I attend a panel discussion where we get to understand the origins of this community, gain some reason of its being. So many little bubbles floating around without a place to pop and ferment, at least until the promise land of the Internet, which can still be isolating. But kind of isn't. So...  

Writing is a solitary pursuit.

Editing and publishing are easier to accomplish with pooled knowledge.

Here they all are because the world got smaller for like-minded people who care.

Thanks to the organizers at CUNY that pool is deep. All it took was a conversation or two; ideas become realized when there is some dialogue.

                   The Dusie Kollektiv started as friends making poetry booklets for each other, using found materials, forming posted palimpsests. The form becomes an extension of the content. As Cara says, the market is removed, there is an audience in mind already and it is tiny, but so important. Distributing literature that is important to the individual is key. 

It’s not about publishing, more about the activity, a relentless pursuit – of connection. Nate Pritts from H_NGM_N BKS, says that a need to belong was his impetus and a sense of belonging was the result. A poet himself, he only publishes others’ work that he wants to read. 

Chapbooks are a labor of exchange, a gift economy. No one expects a pay off in a fiscal sense. There is no money in poetry and yet… writers still write, printers still print and together they create something to be held, if you can find it. 
I think the finding of these works of art is also part of the beauty of them. To come across an artifact so individual is a joy. We can find our favorite poems wherever now but … today shows the difference to just reading. There’s a shared experience of the craft of pen to paper, because when those that create put effort and care into their own endeavors we get to feel it, and keenly.

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